As the wind whipped around the brick walls of the Iowa River Power Restaurant last March 5, the Iowa Hawkeyes sat inside finishing up a team dinner before they would board a plane for their game the next day at Michigan State. Joining the team that night was Joey Jacobsen, a 10-year-old guest of honor who was battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia. When the dinner wound down, Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery nudged star forward Devyn Marble, and told him to let the boy in on the big surprise.
“We’d like you to fly with us tonight to East Lansing, and sit on the bench with us tomorrow when we play Michigan State,” Marble told Joey.
“Sure!” Joey said. “As long as my dad can come.” Mr. Jacobsen was a pretty big Hawkeye fan, too.
As the team watched the heartwarming moment between Joey and his father, Fran’s phone rang. It was his wife, Margaret. Something was wrong with their 13-year-old son, Patrick.
A few days prior, Duez Henderson, a former Iowa basketball player and Patrick’s personal strength coach, had brought him home from a workout and told Margaret that the 6’4”, 140-pound gym rat had seemed to run out of energy much quicker than usual recently, and that he found it increasingly difficult to catch his breath after drills. Margaret soon took Patrick to the doctor, thinking he was sick. The results of an ultrasound had come back that day and revealed that his airway was partially blocked by a tumor.
This is how nightmares start: As Fran urged one of his players to brighten the day of a family devastated by cancer, he received the first warning sign that the disease was about to devastate his own.
“I don’t know if I can accurately describe how I felt,” the 55-year-old father of four says. “You always hear people say, ‘It was like my life stopped for a second.’ It was like everything slowed down and I’m trying to grasp what she just said. And of course, your mind gets going with, ‘what exactly does that mean?’”
Eight months later, as a new season has gotten underway, he knows exactly what it means: that sometimes we live out our nightmares, and that our strength is measured by how we push through them to the other side.
A biopsy performed on Patrick a few days after the initial scan was inconclusive. But based on the concerned silence of their endocrinologist after she felt the lump in their son’s throat, Fran and Margaret suspected things were about to get worse before they got better.
Patrick, who has his father's fiery competitiveness and is resilient enough to deal with anything as long as there’s a basketball court nearby, was convinced he already was better. All he was concerned with was how long it would be before he could challenge Hawkeye players like Marble and guard Josh Oglesby to a game of one-on-one.
“Patrick,” his dad warned, “it might be a few weeks before you can do that.”
Yeah right, Patrick thought. I’ll be back out there in no time.
Faith is a theme that would emerge frequently for the McCafferys during the first half of 2014. Patrick received his first of many lessons in exercising that faith through the steadying words of his doctor, who laid out paths based on whether the tumor proved to be benign or malignant: They’re different paths, but you’re going to end up in the same place, the doctor said. You’re going to be fine.
On March 11, three days after a last-second loss to Illinois in the Hawkeyes’ regular season finale, Margaret huddled in Fran’s office with athletic communications director Steve Roe and associate communications director Matt Weitzel.
Someone had leaked the news of Patrick’s tumor online. If Fran and Margaret didn’t address it, Fran’s press conference that afternoon in advance of the Big Ten tournament would be dominated by questions about his son.
Margaret, Matt and Steve drafted a quick statement about Patrick’s health, then walked over to the team’s practice. Fran saw Margaret approaching and circled up his players, trying to brace himself for what he knew was about to happen.
The college basketball lifer who had had played at Wake Forest and Penn, been an assistant at Notre Dame and made head coaching stops at Lehigh, UNC-Greensboro and Siena knew all about the perils of being a coach. He was under pressure to get the Hawkeyes back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. In an early January game against Wisconsin, Fran had let his emotions get the better of him when he made contact with a referee after receiving a technical foul. Now, he had to worry about keeping a different type of emotion in check.
Margaret told the team that Patrick would have surgery in the coming days to remove a tumor, and that doctors didn’t yet know if it was cancerous. Fran opened his mouth to speak. Instead, he wept. Both of his parents had died from colon cancer. He couldn’t potentially go through this a third time. Not with a son.
Marble grabbed Fran and held him up. He told his coach it was going to be OK, that the team had his back.
“You could just see how hurt he was, how much he was struggling with the fact that he was going to have to deal with that with his child,” Marble says.
Several players cried with Fran. Patrick had spent so much time at practices, in the locker room and on the road with the team that it felt like the tumor had been found in one of their teammates. Margaret fought back tears herself, but implored the team to stay positive.
Oglesby was shaken by his coach’s visceral reaction. He went home from practice that day and resolved to boost the McCafferys’ spirits. He called Matt Morrison, a friend from back home in Cedar Rapids, whose dad, Mark, owns a screen-printing T-shirt business. Oglesby asked Matt if his dad could make some shirts honoring Patrick for the team to wear. Mark donated shirts to the school that had ‘P-Mac,’ Patrick’s nickname, on the front. Oglesby checked with Fran to see if he was OK with the team wearing them.
“He called me back and you could kind of tell he was in tears,” Oglesby says. “He thanked me. I just thought it was [the least] I could do.”
The Hawkeyes wore the shirts during their first-round Big Ten tournament game against Northwestern on March 13. Fans saw them on TV and sent positive messages to Patrick on Twitter using #teampat.
“It made me feel excited,” Patrick says, “Knowing that they were going to be there with me no matter what.”
Iowa won the hearts of fans that day; Northwestern won the game. With the loss, the Hawkeyes had dropped six of their last seven games, leaving them on the NCAA tournament bubble.
On Selection Sunday, when Iowa’s name appeared in the bracket as an 11-seed in the Midwest region, Patrick was watching and cheering right alongside the players. The Hawkeyes were to take on Tennessee in a First Four game in Dayton, Ohio, on March 19 -- the same day Patrick would undergo surgery to remove his tumor.
Fran spent the night before arguably the most important game of his four-year tenure at Iowa drawing up two game plans: one to beat a Tennessee team that had just finished fourth in the Southeastern Conference, and one for his son to get through his surgery successfully.
The latter plan relied on confidence. That came in the form of a supportive phone call from Patrick’s favorite NBA player, the Clippers’ Chris Paul, a native North Carolinian whose family had known the McCafferys during Fran’s time coaching at UNC-Greensboro from 1999-2005.
Paul, who that night would send a tweet asking people to keep Patrick in their prayers that was retweeted 2,700 times, assured him the surgery was just a little “bump in the road.”
The call boosted Patrick’s spirits, but when he woke up the next morning at 5:00 a.m., the fear set in.
“That’s when it all came into focus, what I was going through,” he says. “That’s when I got really scared,” he says.
Patrick’s family was with him throughout the surgery that morning, which lasted fewer than two hours. Fran left the hospital early that afternoon for the airport, eventually arriving in Dayton with just enough time to get on the team bus and go directly to the arena.
When the game tipped off shortly after 8 p.m. Central time, the pathology report on the tumor wasn’t complete; Patrick and his family didn’t know if he had cancer or not.
But Patrick wasn’t thinking about that. Iowa was in the NCAA tournament and they were going to win. All he wanted to do was turn on the TV and watch his Hawkeyes.
Instead, he turned on the TV and heard people talking about him.
ESPN college basketball analyst Digger Phelps, Fran’s former boss during his time as an assistant at Notre Dame, offered heartfelt thoughts about what Patrick was going through on SportsCenter. His name scrolled across the bottom of ESPN’s ticker. TruTV's play-by-play announcers at the game talked about him, and sideline reporter Rachel Nichols interviewed his dad about him.
Patrick wondered if he was still hallucinatory from what he calls “the loopy meds” he took for the surgery that morning.
“He was way more concerned about the game than he was about himself,” Margaret says.
For a little while, Patrick could forget all about his impending diagnosis. Iowa led for the first 37 minutes then traded the lead back and forth with the Volunteers over the final three. Marble hit a shot to tie the score at 64 near the end of regulation. The game went to overtime, but the Hawkeyes only managed one point and lost, 78-65.
Patrick finally broke down. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
After the game, nurses asked him to try walking for the first time since the operation. He was so angry, he nearly ran, pushing a walker down the hall so fast Margaret had a hard time keeping up with him.
If he could just find a way out of whatever this was, if he could outrun his impending diagnosis and the end of Iowa’s season and that stupid overtime period, maybe he could go back to the way things were before.
Patrick eventually reached his own room again. He had traveled in a full circle.
He climbed back into bed and eventually drifted off to sleep late that night as the calendar flipped from March 19 to March 20. Both the surgery and Iowa’s season were over, but he still needed to rest up for another big day tomorrow.
Fran got back from Dayton around 2 a.m. He caught a few hours of sleep and then headed to the hospital and had breakfast with his now-14-year-old son. The two broke down the game, going over what they would have done differently. Patrick devised ways Marble could have gotten more involved offensively, as if he were the coach.
“We had a good day," Fran says. “I didn’t know if he’d be able to eat, if he’d have a sore throat, if he’d be able to get food down. But he was ready to go.”
The hospital released Patrick that night while the family waited for the results of the pathology report.
The next day was supposed to be a day full of firsts, and not just because it was the first day of spring. It was also the first day of the Hawkeyes’ 2014-15 season. The first day in weeks that Patrick didn’t have to see the inside of a doctor’s office or hospital. The first day he could shoot hoops again.
Instead, it was the day Fran McCaffery did the hardest thing he’s ever done: walk into his son’s room, wake him up and tell him he has cancer.
The pathology report had come back. Patrick’s tumor was malignant. They had to get back to the doctor’s office right away.
“We’re thinking, what do we do now?” Fran says. “We’re trying to comfort him, but we don’t know either.”
“This is crazy! I’m fine! This is stupid,” Patrick yelled. Fran and Margaret had to virtually drag him out the door.
As the family drove to the hospital, Indiana coach Tom Crean called to pray for Patrick. It was the latest example of the basketball community rallying to the McCafferys’ side. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo would also offer words of support, noting that his team’s strength and conditioning coach, Mike Vorkapich, had just overcome thyroid cancer. Paul and Clippers coach Doc Rivers invited Patrick to meet them team before a road game they were playing against the Minnesota Timberwolves. At the Final Four a few weeks later, Patrick didn’t ask for a selfie with Dick Vitale. Dick Vitale asked for a selfie with Patrick.
On the morning the McCafferys learned Patrick’s tumor was cancerous, doctors helped the family map out Patrick’s next several months. He thought again of his doctor’s words: You’re going to be fine.
He would spend the next four weeks healing, and then have a second precautionary operation on April 17 to remove the other sections of his thyroid and lymph nodes. Six weeks after that, instead of chemotherapy, there would be iodine treatments. These rendered Patrick literally radioactive, forcing the rest of the family to move into a hotel, requiring them to throw out the sheets he slept on and the PlayStation controllers he used, and mandating that Margaret not get within six feet of him when she brought him meals or fresh laundry.
Finally on June 13, a new thyroid scan revealed no additional signs of cancer. Patrick had won.
Frail but ecstatic, Patrick went back to hanging out with the team, talking trash to Marble and Oglesby about how he going to beat them at one-on-one.
“Nothing had changed with him,” Marble says.
Oglesby agrees: “It kind of seemed like he didn’t skip a beat while he was gone, like nothing had happened.”
He was healthy again, but Patrick wasn’t quite ready to openly discuss what he had been through. In June, he walked out of an agreed-to, on-camera interview with ESPN in the McCaffery home, breaking down and running outside after he read a set of questions directly addressing his treatment and recovery.
“I think it made him very emotional, and it was very hard,” Margaret says. “This is a 14-year-old boy who, as most 14-year-old boys are, not super comfortable talking about feelings and stuff like that. It brought back a lot of memories.”
Patrick only talked about his battle against cancer with his family or a close friend or two. Despite being like an older brother to him, Marble and Patrick never discussed it. Marble knew talking about it would make Patrick uncomfortable because, in the past nine months, he’s lived through that very discomfort himself.
A few days after moving to Florida in August to start his NBA career with the Orlando Magic, Marble’s father was diagnosed with metastatic, stage-IV lung cancer. Roy Marble also happens to be Iowa’s all-time leading scorer, a fixture ensconced in Hawkeyes lore who helped lead them to the school’s most recent Elite Eight appearance in 1987. They are the only father-and-son combination in Big Ten history to each score more than 1,000 points.
But Marble didn’t hear about the diagnosis from his dad. Instead, it was Fran’s voice on the other end of the phone explaining that Roy’s life was in jeopardy.
“Coach McCaffery had to break it down to me, basically comforting me at the same time, but also telling me the truth,” Marble says. “He said it’s not the best situation, it’s not ideal, that he was going to be there for me.”
Just as Devyn had been Fran’s literal shoulder to lean on during Patrick’s diagnosis, Fran had become Devyn’s. The consoled was now the consoler.
Fran still walks into Patrick’s room early each morning, but now he delivers medicine. He wakes Patrick up around 6:20 a.m., brings him a glass of water and 200 micrograms of Levothyroxine, a thyroid medicine, and makes sure Patrick takes it early enough so that he has time eat before he leaves for school. Patrick’s metabolism and appetite still fluctuate substantially, and full meals can mean the difference between extreme fatigue and functionality.
Now, Patrick is back on the court, playing for his eighth-grade team and once again challenging any Iowa player he can to a vigorous game of one-on-one. He is watching his dad’s team play, and dreaming of the day when he can suit up for his father as a Hawkeye.
“My surgeon always said it was like a bump in the road,” Patrick says. “And [that I would] get through it eventually and be back to normal. And I was normal again in, I’d say, a couple months.”
Then he pauses.
“But sometimes it affects you so much that it’s not a bump in the road, and it’s harder to get through.”
For the kid who just wanted to feel normal again, who wanted to do anything but talk about the disease he beat, the time finally came to talk about it. He could help someone else.
On a recent morning, Fran received an email from a Hawkeye fan who lives in Indiana. The man’s 15-year-old daughter was having surgery that week to remove a thyroid tumor. “Will you or Patrick send an email encouraging her?" the man wrote. "She’s scared."
Fran asked Patrick to give the girl a call to tell her what to expect.
Patrick, normally terse and shy, calmly walked her through what type of room she would go into, what the “loopy meds” felt like, how it might be a little uncomfortable at first when she gets hooked up to the IV and how she’ll want to sleep for a little while after the operation is over.
Fran says that showing that kindness and reassurance to someone facing a familiar challenge was a valuable lesson for Patrick to learn.
His voice cracking, Fran explains that it’s valuable because at the end of the discomfort and the pain of Patrick reliving his experience, there’s another teenager in a hospital bed somewhere with cancer. And they’re scared.
They want to know what’s going to happen, and why this is happening to them and when it will go away.
They want to know that they’ll beat this disease, this menace that rises up seemingly out of nothing like a Plains tornado and upends everything in its path, then drifts away and dissipates, reminding us that even though things might never be exactly as they were, they can always be put back together again.